MARCH-ing in!

Phew! There’s no rest for the wicked and yet again it’s been a very hectic few months, not ideal to start the year, but better busy than never! 😉

January started off on a great note despite a busted knee, and my newfound unemployed status was a welcome change that didn’t last long! First it was the nail-biting HK4TUC, then it was The Parentals Flash Sale, followed by HK100!

So easy to get carried away at sales …

Being roped in to be do the social media updates for the Vibram HK100 was so much fun, following the leaders and everyone else out on the course was some inspiring stuff!

Singaporeans in Dim Sum land!

Hopes of starting the year off as Ultrarunning Tai Tai (lady of leisure) didn’t quite go to plan with the offer of a big freelance project in Singapore. It took all of two weeks, but we’re talking 20h days, here …

Coupled with an exciting shoot for Fox TV, it goes without saying I was more than ready for a break.

Sunset drone shot at Ma On Shan … can’t wait to see the final cut!

Chamonix and the gorgeous off-piste powder beckoned (who says you can’t do trails in the snow!), so off we went! The Beast and I fell foul to a debilitating flu a few days before leaving (typical!), so we spent the first couple of days making feeble attempts at getting our ski legs back and drinking as much chocolat chaud as possible.

The Beast kicking up a powder storm

We were signed up for a ski touring course with Chamonix Experience, excellent service as usual and the lovely Fleur was our guide all week. She made sure we had the best possible snow conditions, and it was an awesome course that I’d recommend to anyone! A big plus was having Salomon trail running star Claire Price on the course with us, and the long-suffering Pete, who drew the short straw having to put up with the shenanigans of three trail runners. One of the best ski trips so far, Chamonix is my happy place all year round!!

Best ski group ever!

So what’s next? There’s so much about to happen that I’m not sure I have time to be a tai tai at all .. 😛

First up, KOTH Sham Tseng this weekend! The fabulous fraulein Nora Senn has convinced me that we should just turn up and run, and so we will! With Translantau 100km in a few weeks (2?? Is it only 2 weeks!!!) and then Anzac Ultra starting Easter Monday (450km single stage on the revised course now!), I’d better get my ass in gear pronto!

I have a feeling that 2015 is gonna ROCK!

  • No categories

Tor des Geants Section 7 – Ollomont to Courmayeur (49.08km)

Are we there yet??
It’s Friday afternoon at 4.45pm and I’ve just left the Ollomont life base. I’ve now completed 283.5km and have been on the go (more or less) for about 126 hours. Apart from sore feet, a loose toenail, sore knees and the random hallucination, I’m feeling just fine. Nothing else is actually bothering me and when I take stock I realise that I’m actually feeling pretty good.
I happily wave goodbye to Steve and trundle off into the sunset. It’s pretty cold out despite the sunny afternoon but it’s a decent climb ahead to warm me up. It’s steep going up to Col Champillon (2709m), and I am passed by a group of Italians in good spirits. It’s the last section to Courmayeur, less than 50km to the finish, and for a lot of us the finish now looks like a real possibility. I stop at Rifugio Champillon for some warm soup and it’s full of runners who stopped for a meal. I see Harald again, and he heads off to find a bed for a few hours, and Kazuko is there too, filling her plate and having a great conversation with the Italians. Runners seem to have lots of supporters at this rifugio, and the atmosphere is quite upbeat. I put on all my warm layers and head out with Kazuko, but not before the Italians promise to meet us in Courmayeur for a beer. Nearly there!
It’s more steep ascent to the Col and I’m looking forward to running down the other side. The downhills seem to be better for me than the climbing although my knees are starting to complain about the pounding they get. Going over the top, I start running down, and the terrain is a bit more moor-like again, with narrow trails worn into the mountain shrubbery. I’m not far down when I realise I’m in trouble. My feet HURT. The pain gets so bad that Kazuko in her hoppity Hokas just bounces past me, and disappears down the mountain.
I try to run on the grassy bits instead, but this doesn’t really offer much respite. My mood’s swung from anticipation of the finish (perhaps a little premature!) to a despair that I’ll probably need to endure this pain for the next 15-20 hours that it’ll take me to finish. Gaaaaah!!
I’m caught by a group of older men, two of whom are racing and the others have opted to escort their friends for the last stretch to Courmayeur. I try to stay with them as it gets dark, and get in line at te back of their little group. The chap in front of me has Hokas on and my headlamp is focused on them all through the descent as I try and fight the pain in my feet. I’ve never wanted a descent to end more than that one. I was nearly in tears when we finally got to the bottom. I have no idea where I am, but the group seems to so I just do my best to stick with them. One of the escorts was helping out at a previous checkpoint and remembers me. As the trail flattens out, we talk about all sorts in a mix of French, Italian and English, and I’m grateful for the distraction. We reach a checkpoint (Pointelle Desot) and everyone goes inside to take stock and get warm. Kazuko’s in there warming up by a fire, together with a few other runners. One of them remembers me from along the trail, but sadly he’s pulling out there due to knee problems. This stop definitely calls for cheese. Sitting down gives my feet some respite and by the time the guys are ready to go again, I’m feeling in better spirits. 
It’s 10km to the next checkpoint and according to the guys, it’s flat. Yeah right. They’re not wrong though. It’s very gently undulating on the next stretch, but despite that I’m having serious problems. My feet hurt to a point where I can’t even keep up with the guys. They try to encourage me but it’s no use. I’m getting slower and slower as each step really is agony. I don’t understand why I’m in so much pain now. The trail is a lot like the pebbled reflexology paths we see along the park connectors, maybe not quite as severe. But it feels like I’m walking barefoot on sharp rocks .. I can’t do the reflexology path even at the best of times!
Try walking on this barefoot! Photo: Amanda Wright

What I thought would be a steady 50km to the finish is turning out to be a nightmare exercise in pain management and endurance. Another friendly escort turns up (I’ve forgotten all their names!), and he’s taken on the task of helping me along. Turns out he owns a climbing equipment shop and is a very nice chap. we find Kazuko on the way (she’s weaving all over the trail and looks desperately in need of some sleep). She’s added to the drawn out group, as is Tamura Satoshi, a deaf runner from Japan. All I remember about the next bit is that I was worried I wouldn’t be able to finish. How could I do 300km and not be able to finish the last 30?! That’s just cruel. I was just about crying from the pain, each step felt like my feet were on fire and I was so tired that I was ready to on the trail. Climber guy assured us we were nearly at St-Rhemy-en-Bosses, the next rest stop. We finally got out ont a big road and could see the town lights, but it was a genuine case of “Are we there yet!”. It seemed to take forever and then some to get to the checkpoint, and I am truly grateful for Steve coming out at ungodly hours to meet me along the way. Once again Steve miraculously appears to lift my spirits. Doesn’t do much for the pain in my feet, but it somehow cheers me up a little seeing a familiar face. I’m at utter rock bottom now, and we herd Kazuko in front of us as our little trio reaches the St-Rhemy checkpoint. (Climber guy went ahead at the road to find his friends.) There’s a crowd at the checkpoint, all waiting to cheer friends and family on this last section. Steve guides me to the food tent where I have some hot soup and a slice of pizza. At this point I’m so tired and miserable that I need a little comfort, gluten-intolerance be damned.

Hot soup and pizza at St-Rhemy. Photo: Steve Organ

I’m desperate for sleep now. Kazuko and I are ushered to a building and beds on the first floor. I’m in agony climbing up the stairs, but try not to think about any more than getting some rest. I ask to be woken in an hour, and Steve promises to double check that they do. What a star.

When I lay down on the bed, my feet were throbbing so hard that it really started to worry me. But fatigue won out in the end and it was probably the deepest sleep I’ve had since TDG started, and an hour feels like nothing. But given the state I’m in I need all the time I can get if I’m going to hobble to the finish. I make sure I’ve got every possible item of clothing on, it’s freezing outside. Literally. I have 3 pairs of gloves on and I’m extremely reluctant to move out. The memory of the pain from the previous 10km is still fresh in my mind. For the first time ever, in any race that I’ve ever done, I take painkillers. I ask Steve what he thought .. ibuprofen or Panadol? I took both, just to be on the safe side. The picture below sums it up. I really did not want to go out there!

Heading out of St-Rhemy. Photo: Steve Organ

I think it’s about 2am now, and this is the last major climb ahead to Col Malatra (2936m). Nothing for it, just keep moving forward! I’m off and out, and feeling much better after the short sleep. My feet are still sore, but I suspect the rest has allowed my brain to power up again, enough to deal with the pain a little better. I’m climbing and alone, no other headlamps to be seen at all. It’s a while before I realise my feet don’t hurt too much anymore, the painkillers have finally kicked in and this is AWESOME. Ok, here we go.

The trail is crazy in the dark, some bits are where the fauna have eaten, chewed or trampled the markers so they’re few and far between. There’s tiny trails that criss-cross everywhere and it’s not so simple in the dark. I’ve suddenly caught up with some Spaniards (maybe .. for some reason I thought they were speaking Spanish) and follow them for a short while before I realise that they’re all a bit lost too. I take the lead as they all are really fatigued and desperate for the next checkpoint to rest. I trying hard to keep a good pace so that we can all make it there sooner, but they end up falling behind. I move ahead and stop periodically to check their headlamps are still following, particularly at a river crossing that edges a very sharp drop off to one side. After what seems like hours of hiking, Rifugio Frassati finally comes into view. Once again, a truly welcome sight. There’s little dots of headlamp lights all around, some entering, some leaving the rifugio, and others having made their way ahead.  It’s nearly 6am on Saturday and the closing cut-off at Frassati is 8am. It’s lovely and warm inside, and I decide to rest up till sunrise, not far off. It’ll be a huge boost and I’m so tired that I have a 10 minute power nap on the bench. There’s lost of people coming and going, some really hanging on with all they have, but there’s a current of hope and anticipation because we can almost reach out and touch the finish now. Familiar faces everywhere, tired smiles and determined grimaces.

I see Harald again at Frassati, he’s surprised to see me but we wait for the sunrise together and head out towards Col Malatra. This is Harald’s second TDG, he finished the 2012 edition but the last bit over Malatra to Courmayeur got snowed out so they cut it short by 30km. That’s why he’s back this year, to get a proper finish.  Same story with Matt M. Go through all that just to climb one more mountain and finish in Courmayeur? There’s no WAY you’d catch me doing that .. famous last words though! 😉

The sun is up and the climb to Malatra is stunning. It’s still freezing as the sun hasn’t quite reached us, and I finally feel lucid enough to get the camera out for some reminders of this crazy race.

Harald and I halfway up to Col Malatra.
The end is near!
I thought they were Spanish …
The valley behind us, that’s where we came through during the night.

It’s a steep climb up the last part of Malatra, with ropes to help .. difficult when you have poles in your hands, but it doesn’t last long so thank goodness for that!

Onward to Malatra – the peak is at the far left of the pic.
Up to the peak of Col Malatra – steeper than it looks! (Note the ropes ..)
View from the top with Mont Blanc in the background
The other side of Malatra – downhill, but the sun hasn’t quite reached it yet!

Going down the other side was out of the sun and 5.5km downhill to Rifugio Bonatti. The painkillers are starting to wear off and I can feel my feet and knees complaining as I run the descent. The finish is 12km from Bonatti – I can do this! I have to stop along the way and start peeling layers off as I warm up from my run, and when I look back there’s no one around. Everyone I met at the top of Malatra is having issues running downhill, but that’s not much of surprise given what we’ve been through. I’m so caught up in my daydreams of finishing that I get slightly lost and have to backtrack quite a bit to find Bonatti. The very lovely Valentina is there, helping her parents with manning the checkpoint. I met Valentina at the Courmayeur checkpoint for UTMB the week before, where she was patiently helping race crews track their runners.  I’d seen her early along the course and her cheerful greeting just added to my anticipated excitement of finishing. She made sure I left with a handful of mocetta, the delicious cured beef of the Aosta region, and the I was off again on my own.

It’s 9.30am with 12km to go, and it felt unbelievable that my mad journey was coming down to single digit figures! 6.5 hours to race cutoff, the finish was mine unless my legs fell off.

After a sharp descent from Bonatti, the trail profile looks pretty flat .. but the squiggles were back with a vengeance! I resign my self to trying to keep a reasonable pace and meet some friends along the way .. donkeys are bigger up close than I thought!

My TDG wildlife encounters 😉
I run up a large hill where there’s a few people sat waiting for runners to come past, and I’m hoping that’s close to Bertone (the next checkpoint), but no such luck. One of the spectators gets up and starts shouting, then starts running along with me as I crest the hill. It’s Li Jia, one of the photographers from the China Technica team. He’s been kitted out in Salomon everytime I’ve seen him and is signed up for an ultra in HK soon. Further along I understand why he was shouting. Wang Bo, another videographer/photographer is lying on the side of the trail trying to get a video and some pictures. I wave to him as I run past, and I hear him yelling that he’s got some nice shots. They’ve been great company along the way too, I’ve seen them at almost every major stop and they always ask how I am. Hats off to all the race crews and supporters, it’s not an easy job! 
Photo credits: Wang Bo.
Rifugio Bertone is much further than I thought it would be, but I ran the last bit in my first days at Courmayeur, and I was really looking forward to the 4.5km downhill from Bertone to Courmayeur. I catch up with a few guys as I reach Rifugio Bertone, and I don’t stop apart from a swig of Coke. The sun is shining, I don’t care what hurts, it’s (almost) a hop, skip and a jump to the finish! ALLEZ! 
Coming up the other way is the old chap I keep meeting. He’s been hiking backwards to find his wife (the French lady I met along the way to Rifugio Sogne in Section 3) all along the course, and we’ve seen each other often enough now to exchange greetings with a smile and a wave.
It feels like I’m flying on the last bit, hurtling down the trail. My poles are invaluable at helping me vault over stuff and I’m running high on adrenalin now. I pass a few runners along the way and hikers and supporters coming the other way. There was a small (probably inevitable) crash given my fatigues, the terrain, and the ‘speed’ I was going, but nothing I’m not used to! Finally getting back onto the road and off the trail just got me so exciting I was literally sprinting towards the town center. I pull out a Singapore flag and attach it to my poles, and I’m waving it enthusiastically at everyone. If anyone missed me coming in, there’s no way they would miss this crazy person waving a flag a meter above her head .. I was slightly worried that I might have it upside down or back to front, hence once I’d put it up, that’s where it was staying!
I see Steve waiting by the park and it’s a close call as to whose got the bigger grin. He’s trying to take pics and running with me at the same time, I’m just so delighted to see him, and that I’m going to FINISH! Running through the town, down the red carpet (flag waving the whole time), and it was a truly satisfying feeling crossing the line. 145 hours, 38 minutes and 29 seconds of rollercoaster emotions, sleep deprivation and some of the most breathtaking scenery I’ve ever seen. Done.
Photos: Lawrence Daly
Signing the finish poster
Signing the tribute poster in memory of Yang Yuan
Photo credits: Steve Organ

There were no tears, as I thought there might be, but I was so hyped on endorphins and the fact that I’d finished that I was grinning from ear to ear for the next 3 days. Steve hands me a bottle of champagne, apparently it was Andre Blumberg’s suggestion .. thanks Andre! Matt turn up – he finished well in 64th place nearly 2 days earlier than I did, what a star! He was walking a bit funny from having decided to use brand new Hokas (bought the day before and having never run in Hokas) for the race though! I knew there was something about those shoes! 😉

Photo: Steve Organ
Bottoms up! Photo: Pietro Celesia
Gelati at the finish! photo: Steve Organ
Andrea, my companion on the first night.
We all have some gelati to celebrate, which went perfectly with the champers 🙂 I hobble off back to the flat, get showered, changed and head back to the finish line to see the last few coming in. Andrea makes it back, as does Barry and Shuwen, and I must have missed Kazuko, but I see her at prize giving the next day. I feel battered but surprisingly good, and HUNGRY. I know from experience that the post-ultra furnace allows me to eat just about anything without the normal side-effects so pizza and cheese are on the menu! I do my best to scoff everything in sight, just a shame that the pain in my feet make getting around far slower than I’d like. The last two finishers come in to a hugely cheering crowd, it’s the French lady and some other guy! So glad she made it through 🙂
Barry from Hong Kong

The next day at prize giving, it’s raining. I’m all swollen from head to toe and barely managed to get my calf compression on the night before. Looks like a lot of people are the same, and the sports hall is a mass of smiling, limping, people with puffy faces.

With Kazuko, an amazing lady!
Harald, delighted with his second finish.
Iker had to have a pic with me 😉 Nice trophy!
Li Jia, photographer, videographer, runner and cheerleader for the China Technica team
Dottore – he fixed my feet and I owe him a beer!

Akemi – it was her second TDG finish!

They call out our names inidividually, starting from the last finisher, and present us each with our finisher fleece. Perfect for the weather outside!

The lovely Valentina
Giovanni and Stefano, whom I kept meeting all along the way

He STILL has his pack on!!
Fat feet!
Wang Bo, another photographer extraordinare 🙂
Wang Da Qing
Hiroko Suzuki, from the Japan Salomon Team
Nerea was really nice and helped me hold my trophy 😉
We’re all GIANTS!

In hindsight? I have a lot of people to thank.
Matt Coops for his calm coaching, visualisation and breathing techniques, they were invaluable during the event with none of the mental fallout I had after UTMB.
My sponsors Hammer Nutrition Singapore and Salomon Singapore for all the nutrition and kit I needed, I am always grateful for their support.
The crew, organisers, volunteers and runners I met all along the way. Everyone was doing their best at all times, and it showed.
Anders The Beast and family and friends from all over who sent messages of support and encouragement, you don’t realise how much one your messages lifted my spirits and pushed me on. I know my family were praying for me to be safe, and there were a lot of times when I was too!
An ultra is a spiritual experience, and my faith is always strengthened when I emerge from these trials unscathed. God did keep me safe, there’s no doubt.
And Steve, who was an absolute angel. Being at every life base and some checkpoints in between, Steve managed to singlehandedly cheer me up, sort me out and keep me going for whole of TDG. And he hadn’t even planned on being there. I’d never planned on having any race support, but I’m so glad he decided to stay. You’re a star, Steve! x

For those who’d consider doing this crazy race, here’s some advice:
1. Arrive a little earlier if you can to acclimatise and get used to the altitude. my 10 days before to catch UTMB was perfect.
2. Stay in the Courmayeur town centre unless you’ve got someone to help with driving and other things. There’s no guarantees you’ll be fit for much after the race!
3. The tourist info office in town by the bus station has some decent maps and info.
4. The tap water is perfectly drinkable and is the best I’ve had anywhere in the world so far!
5. Don’t forget your poles.
6. Don’t underestimate the weather. Bring more than you need as you never know how it’ll all turn out.
7. I took a SAVDA bus from Chamonix to Courmayeur (booked online) but you can also get buses/trains direct from Geneva or Milan.
8. If I did this again I’d plan it like a stage race, so I have enough sleep and will know to bring shower gel and other stuff!
9. The checkpoints have standard European fare – dried apricots, oranges, dark chocolate and biscuits. Some have salami, cheese, pasta and soup. Drinks are usually water (still & sparkling) , tea, coffee and coke. Hot food (potatoes, rice salad, pasta) are available at life bases and some of the larger checkpoints, and it’s all real food – no gels or electrolyte drinks.
10. make sure you have decent waterproof kit including your headlamps (at least 100 lumens recommended), gloves and spare socks.
11. I’m really glad I brought a camera with me even though I was too tired/grumpy/lazy to get may camera out all the time. I bought the waterproof Sony TX30 in metallic fuchsia (stealth is not my middle name) and it was great. Light, easy to use (not so easy with 3 pairs of gloves on) and didn’t need any special attention. Except I attached it to a bungee cord tied to my pack (worried I’d drop it down the side of a cliff) and that meant I could only take selfies and landscape shots .. next time I’ll use a carabiner to attach so I can remove it and ask someone to help me take a decent pic.
12. Have fun!

I’ve learnt so much, had such an amazing time, and realised that it really is all in your head. I’m even thinking about doing it again .. maybe! 😉